Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome back Ashley Cooper, one of Suffolk's leading local historians, to the Parish Room on April 19th. As anticipated, our audience of more than 40 people were enthralled by the myriad connections he had identified between the ‘Jewel in the Crown' and Suffolk, and the historical context so ably portrayed - he really is a brilliant storyteller.
Ashley began by asking the audience if they had any personal connection to India or had visited there; four people (10% of the audience) indicated they had. He then noted that 70 years ago, King George VI was the King Emperor of India, whilst 80 years ago the UK commonly celebrated Empire Day - such different times. He then tried to give a sense of the sheer scale of ‘British India', which stretched some 2,000 miles East from the Khyber Pass to Burma and another 2,000 miles South from the Himalayas to the coast of Kerala at the bottom of the mainland - a simply staggering size.
Ashley then threw in a curved ball of a question - Where did the majority of British men in India go to school? This caught us all out, with various answers from ‘private schools' to Eton, Harrow and the like. The answer he told us was small village schools such as that in Little Waldingfield, because the vast bulk of British men in India were army privates, the sons of farmers just one or two generations away from illiterate forebears who were often subject to transportation for minor crimes. The general feeling at the time was that ‘you had to leave to get on in life', and leave they did, in droves. Another interesting snippet was that just 1,300 civil servants administered India, including the railways, and many such ICS employees went weeks or months without seeing another European face.
Ashley then explained that he had visited India as a young man and, on his return, one day on the boundary of his father's farm, he was asked by farmhand Cecil Smith how he had found India. Being somewhat cocksure he replied glibly and without much thought, to then be asked a whole series of detailed questions clearly illustrating detailed knowledge of the country. This started a trend over the next 40 years as he kept coming across people who had served in the army in India, typically for seven years (the minimum commitment); he therefore decided to interview these men before their shared memories disappeared, writing his book ‘The Khyber Connection, The furrow and the Raj'.
We were then treated to a quick history lesson of various sieges from the 1790s (Seringapatam) to the 1850s, when Lucknow was besieged during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, firstly for 87 days and then again for a further 61 days until relief finally arrived. Ashley advised that many Suffolk churches have memorials to men lost during the Indian Campaign, before asking the audience how the public back home felt about the situation given that communication with loved ones in India was slow, to say the least. A little surprisingly we learnt that the Suffolk and Essex press carried weekly articles and that there were many local fund raising efforts to improve the lot of men over there.
Ashley then spoke about the Suffolk Regiment, into which most East Anglian men were recruited. In 1878 the regiment moved into what is now Afghanistan with 850 men, the Khyber Pass, returning a year and a month later less 92 men who had died. This lead to another question to the audience as to the main cause of death, but we had wised up by now and got the answer right - dysentery sadly.
It seems that life in Indian barracks was interesting to say the least; based upon his interviews, men could have their laundry, including uniforms, done for just one rupee a week - a bargain - but being shaved in bed whilst asleep seems like a dangerous thing to do, particularly during times of local revolt. It also seems there was a huge gulf between officers and ranks, who lived separate lives. The tale of the officer's overcoat will live long in the memory; apologies to readers who were not present, but I am no Ashley Cooper and unable to convey the build up to the story, the denouement and all the nuances along the way. Needless to say, the men had to suffer sand flies, frequent bouts of dysentery, much practical joking along with usually going to bed hungry, then often being woken up by various comments such as ‘how would you like some of your mother's rabbit pie now' - the ways of the countryside was how Ashley described such behaviour.
We were then given some insight into the business connections between Suffolk and India. William Armes is a leading UK manufacturer / distributor of domestic doormats, rugs and runners, based in Sudbury though first established in Kings Lynn, in 1830, to make use of coir and coconut fibre for matting shipped back from India. More up to date, Rafi Fernandez, born and raised in Hyderabad, moved to England in 1965 aged just 21, opening her Asian delicatessen in Sudbury in 1988 with the help of second husband Den. Rafi's Spicebox continues today, in Sudbury, York, Harrogate and Newcastle, and is a mecca for curry aficionados. Bringing this connection full circle, men from the ranks seemed to enjoy going to the cinema to watch silent black and white movies, apparently passing the time stoning each other with fruit pips if the film was not great - one such cinema owner, who seems to have been given much good humoured grief, was Rafi Hernandez's father.
Ashley then turned our attention to the wives of army men, who often paid a huge price for their experience, either dying early during childbirth or having to say goodbye to their children when aged two, when they were sent home to keep them away from Indian diseases, possibly not seeing them until they returned four or more years later. More happily, the post office established a quicker way for letters to be sent to India (and other places); the Aerograph process filmed the letters, sending the film by airmail before local printing and despatch to recipients. Initially just 36 letters at a time were filmed, taking between 5 and 10 days, down considerably on the months travel by sea, but over time special forms were used along with much larger film capacity to increase efficiency.
Ashley told us that some British women also spent time in India, mainly as nurses, and they were generally very concerned with the mental health of the men, the majority of whom were very young (18 or 19) and desperately homesick. This perhaps helps explain the practical jokes often played on mates or even officers, a favourite being to pour petrol down the latrines (simply a hole in the ground surrounded by a tent); when the victim arrived to do his business, throwing a fag down the hole created quite a bang, resulting in many burnt backsides.
Following this, Ashley spoke about the ‘Forgotten Army', a multinational force comprising units from many Commonwealth countries who, together with British Army units, held the line at Kohima Ridge for months against vastly superior Japanese forces. Survivors of the slaughter, privations and appalling conditions interviewed said the end result looked worse than the trenches of the First World War. A couple of VCs were awarded, whilst Ashley told us the epitaph on the memorial to the British Second Division in the cemetery is now world famous, as the Kohima Epitaph:
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today
This verse is attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds and is thought inspired by the epitaph written by Simonides to honour Spartans who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. It seems entirely appropriate based on some of the comments Ashley received from his interviewees:
As Ashley said, this is his contribution to remembering the forgotten army of the Burma campaign.
The talk really was an incredible tour de force, by a most accomplished and authoritative speaker, which held the audience completely spellbound throughout.
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